The following review was written by 白河, founding member of Hangzhou Audio Retailer, Zinc Workshop
The original piece can be found here: https://post.smzdm.com/p/762919/
Translated by Asher Yeo
The word “Dream” encompasses everything from a simple biological phenomenon to an abstract concept. There weren't any products I knew of named "Dream" before the DITA Dream, up to that time, the word “Dream” had always been more of an adjective, to be used in statements like “Leica is my dream Camera”.
And the word "Dream" almost always describes something unrealistic and too good to be true.
In Sigmund Freud's masterpiece of psychoanalysis, “The Interpretation of Dreams” he suggests that dreams exist to fulfil subconscious desires.
As audio hobbyists with high expectations on playback quality, our subconscious is often filled with near-unrealistic ideas of how playback sound like. The DITA Dream Flagship series was created in response to these near-unrealistic expectations.
But it’s not the expectations of hobbyists the Dream was created to respond to, it’s DITA’s own expectations and Dreams.
Speaking of DITA, one would undoubtedly think of Singapore, the fact that they only use dynamic drivers, their excellent engineering and craftsmanship and, of course “Shirley”.
But DITA’s brand story goes all the way back to 1971: Something DITA’s fans who followed their Project 71 release would have already had an understanding of. DITA's standing stems from its parent company Packagers Pte Ltd, a Singaporean manufacturing and juggernaut, a fact that also explains why DITA’s minimal designs are so well engineered.
I had the opportunity to see Project 71’s 3D renders before its release, when I first received the CAD file I thought that the dimensions were off, it was only after repeated confirmation where I realised that DITA could, indeed engineer and manufacture things beyond my understanding of what I thought was achievable, in this case, the thickness of the chassis.
Owners of DITA’s Project 71 may not be able to imagine the implications macassar ebony and brass, assembled in the way they were in Project 71, have on the engineering and manufacturing process.
Leveraging on their parent company’s strengths, the DITA team was established in 2012. Every product comes with a familiar welcome card with the signature of the company’s two founders, Danny and Desmond Tan, both of them have the letter “D” as their initial. And the same surname “Tan” combining these two elements gave the name “DITA” a neat little name.
In DITA’s story though, there’s something of a hidden co-founder, a young vinyl fanatic by the name of Darren Goh. The three leaves forming the letter D represents the three founders’ love for music
(I’m suddenly reminded of another Singaporean Brand with three leaves as their logo, I wonder if there’s a similar story behind that.)
Many may wonder why a manufacturing juggernaut would want to go into high-end earphones.
I’ve interviewed plenty of founders and got similar answers when I asked why they created a brand “ I wasn’t satisfied with what’s on the market, I wanted to create the best product myself.” While trawling through the depths of DITA”s philosophy though, I found that their goals didn’t come from the market, neither was it as superficial as the pursuit of good music.
I had a friend who always wanted to go into aviation, we always discussed how some men could defy the laws of physics to take to the skies. I once asked him why he was so stubborn about going to distant galaxies. He answered, “It’s not just a childhood dream you know, I want answers about where we come from and where we’re going.”
This thought is the same one fueling men of science through the ages: Elon Musk once said something similar in an interview. This is where “Dreams” come from.
Freud said that Dreams were the disguised fulfillment of childhood wishes. Perhaps Elon Musk had a simple childhood dream of going to space, leading up to the establishment of Space X.
DITA’s search stems from the same source, DITA seems to take these childhood dreams and subconscious thoughts, adding them their pursuit of good music.
Attaining seemingly impossible Dreams, searching for Answers and finding Truth in music.
Charm in Simplicity
DITA’s insistence on the use of a single dynamic driver might be one of the biggest hallmarks of their philosophy.
This stems from their “simple is best” sonic philosophy. DITA feels that in the tiny space of a earphone chassis, there may not actually be a need to divide up frequency bands, because more components might mean more conflict. Adding components will definitely add to the complexity of a construct. As the Chinese saying goes : Another incense burner, another ghost
A lot of times in high end personal audio, 1+1 might not add up to 2. A more complex construct could mean more problems.
These days manufacturers pile up driver upon driver, but drive number might not correspond to the sound you hear in a pair of IEMs. Extra work often has to be done to combat the extra noise caused by having too many drivers. This is also why, despite the perception that a dynamic driver-based IEM might not be as intricately constructed as a multi-driver IEM, it’s still a widely held consensus that single dynamic drivers can produce a more natural sound.
Where some brands talk their driver materials up, DITA's never made a big deal of their diaphragm material, staying secure in the
fact that, while their technology wasn’t most showy, it was the most mature.
A simple, reliable composite diaphragm. They were confident that even the simplest materials could produce a great sound signature.
Despite their pursuit for simplicity in of construction and materials, DITA’s choice of materials and chassis engineering is nevertheless meticulous. This isn’t just because they have a manufacturing juggernaut backing them up, it’s also because of their philosophy. Chamber resonance in the limited space of a earphone's chassis would also impact the sound of the earphone.
This is why DITA uses hard-to-machine metals in their product lineup: Like brass and titanium, both of which have excellent sonic properties. While these metals aren’t common by any means, they have indeed been used in a myriad of products and they’re pretty normal compared to the “ultrarare metals” used in the industry these days.
DITA’s charm however, lies exactly in its philosophy of simplicity.
Dream XLS: Dream Bigger
If the Gen 1 Dream was an expression of DITA’s original Dream, the Dream XLS is the cumulation of DITA’s long pursuit of perfection, an amalgamation of the technologies and know how accumulated during the development of the original dream.
We often say “Dream big” so I’ve also subconsciously thought of the Dream XLS as the “Bigger Dream.”
Looking at the Dream XLS through the eyes of DITA’s philosophy, the Dream XLS has all the trappings of a “grander” Drea, this, we can tell by looking at the XLS' name. XLS, as everyone knows, means “Xtra Large Soundstage” although I’m not exactly convinced that’s its only meaning.
I’d like to analyse the name XLS from a few different angles.
As a designer, I’m going to start off by looking at the XLS from a design standpoint. Industrial design has always been an hallmark of DITA’s. DITA builds on the design language of the Gen 1. Dream, retaining it’s overall look and feel and making tweaks by integrating new materials and technology. However the XLS’ design highlights don’t lie solely on within its earpieces.
In product design, there’s a concept called “total design” this refers to the entire visual identity contributing to the visual feel of the entire product, as well as the overall customer experience. This requires the design philosophy to penetrate into each and every detail, consistently. (This means from unboxing, usage, storage and any other related actions.
The concept of Total Design often appears in luxury products that place a great emphasis on user experience. It’s something that’s lacking in product design in general, and there’s certainly a dearth of it in Hi-Fi.
Total Design isn’t made or broken by the product itself, it has to appear in elements as major as packaging to elements as minor as font selection. These should a cohesive customer experience, something most products are unable to achieve (either because the manufacturer deems them unnecessary or in an effort to conserve capital).
As a leading design-led company in the industry, DITA pulled no punches in it’s effort to achieve total design, from fonts to packaging to the unboxing flow, DITA has made each experience the best it can be.
Engineering is the process of making a design tangible. In this area, DITA has a natural edge.
The Solidworks suite has been a fixture in industrial design and mechanical engineering. Last year at the Solidworks Innovation Day 2020, Solidworks invited two companies to share their techniques, one of these companies is DITA.
Even in the prototyping process, the XLS leverages on DITA’s heritage, it’s professional and meticulous.
Due to the implementation of new techniques and technologies XLS’ choice of Colour, Material and Finishing far exceeds the generation 1 Dream (speaking as a user of the Gen 1 Dream, I think I'm not alone in being unable to stand the fact that raw titanium was used, as is, in its chassis.)
Part of the XLS’ design relies on chamfers to give the chassis it’s durability, heightening manufacturing requirements (the original dream had rounded edges in its design) its polishing is meticulous, requiring the skill of experienced Japanese craftsmen. The XLS’ polishing time exceeds the Titanium’s cutting time (8 hours of CNC), this means that every pair of the XLS’ chassis, from raw material to completion, requires at least a single working day to finish.
A earphone’s material should also work in the service of its design: Material selection is key in making a product look attractive and function well. I mentioned earlier that a titanium chassis has outstanding sonic properties and has the benefit of being light, strong, non-toxic and hypoallergenic. However, due to the material’s physical properties, it’s difficult and plain inefficient to machine, and, needless to say, to polish. This was one of the reason the Gen 1 Dream was as plain as it is.
This time, with the support of new techniques and skilled craftsmen, the XLS has already become the prettiest IEM in many hobbyists minds (my Lab II finds this unfair).
Detail-wise DITA used gold trimmings and sapphire glass to make the XLS more elegant. Looking back on the material choices made in the Dream XLS, it’s not hard to realise that DITA is able to take this exploratory stance on materials because of the support of Packagers Pte. Ltd.
Of course, speaking of materials, we need to mention the custom made XLS-ised oil-soaked OSLO cable, it’s key to the XLS’ completion, from colour, to sound to the plug and splitter, it’s all the service of the bigger dream the XLS wants to convey.
Neutral and Natural: Bigger and More Beautiful
The XLS, in both its aura and in the way it presents sound, can be seen as an evolution of the Gen 1 Dream. The “Extra Large Soundstage” that that XLS aims to convey can be seen as an evolution of the Gen 1 Dream’s “Wide Soundstage”.
Those familiar with DITA’s Gen 1 Dream will be familiar with DITA’s standards regarding their mid-range. The Gen 1 Dream has a standard studio sound, equally divided frequencies and a tuning that emphasizes accuracy. This led many hobbyists to feel like "reference" was the best word to describe DITA’s house tuning.
The Generation 1 Dream was also one of the more natural sounding flagship earphones of that era. This is the sort of naturalness DITA often finds itself looking for, one that’s also imbued with Hi-End characteristics. The original Dream’s quality and its effortless extension to both extremes of the sound spectrum positioned it as a reference for neutral-sounding dynamic driver earphones.
This emphasis on neutral sound has also evolved and expanded within the XLS, this was done through a process almost similar to trial and error. During the final tuning of the XLS, I, too got the opportunity to hear a few versions of tuning. Earlier verisons took on more of the XLS’ characteristics. But that doesn’t mean that the XLS has strayed too far away from its neutral roots.
Some people might know that I sometimes prefer a product's prototype version to it's final version.
But that wasn’t the case for the XLS. I heard the XLS’ last prototype version at the Chengdu Audio Show last year, I then told Shirley that this was the version I liked the most.
The XLS’ final iteration made me truly understand the reductive approach DITA took towards the XLS. It is indeed these methods that created the XLS as and evolution of the Gen 1 Dream. This evolution has leaned slightly away from DITA’s neutral tuning but has leaned more into DITA’s natural tuning.
Through the process of reduction the XLS seems to have tamped down the extension of the highs and the impact of the bass. The DD often carries the stereotype of “impactful bass”, however, the XLS doesn’t possess this characteristic.
The XLS clearly has faster bass than the Dream, but it retains the Dream’s bass extension. Highs are more direct in the Gen 1 Dream as compared to the XLS, focusing on pinpoint accuracy. This was also why the original Dream was as unforgiving as it was, it was also prone to distortion from the highs of brass instruments.
The XLS’ highs, upon first listen, may seem more controlled and gentle than the original Dream, this change has led the XLS to sound more “melodic” than the original Dream. The XLS lacks the ultra-focused highs present in the Dream, but that also means that listeners no longer have to worry about sudden high spikes in their music, this also makes the XLS comparatively forgiving.
The XLS still retains its DITA highs though, something you can hear at the 4-5Hz peak, its highs are smoother than the original Dream’s highs, brass and string instruments sound great with the XLS. It’s easier to listen to and speaks to the merits of DITA’s reductive tuning methods.
The Dream’s mids are a double-edged sword, the original Dream’s mids are actually more unique, hence why plenty of audiophiles still talk about it to this day. However, the Gen 1 Dream’s mids are actually more controlled in comparision to the XLS' the Gen 1 Dream posseses a V shaped frequency curve, but this isn’t obvious upon listening. (I actually feel like the Gen 1 Dream’s bass extension might have been caused by this suppression of the mid range).
The XLS’ mids and lows are more organic, the mids have been retained and pushed forward. Imaging and positioning is now clearer, but there seems to be a bit less immersion. This sort of tuning however, is useful for expressing emotional shifts in a piece of music.
XLS’ frequency bands are tuned to be balanced, but yet they still emulate some of DITA’s core neutrality and naturalness. If you like ultra-impactful bass or goosebump inducing highs, the XLS is not for you. However, I feel like the XLS is a better piece of playback equipment than the Original Dream.
Since the Dream XLS carries an “Xtra Lrge Soundstage” tagline, the Dream XLS’ soundstage is nothing to scoff at, it feels more three-dimensional and better positioned. The original dream already has a great soundstage, but seemed to emphasize width over other elements.
The XLS’ soundstage isn’t only big, it’s natural--the listener can feel the space and shape of the soundstage. It’s still detailed and transparent like the original Dream. Thanks to DITA’s new Ultra Linear Dynamic Driver, it sounds bigger, more detailed and is easier to drive.
DITA’s design team’s Engineering expertise has proven to be a big boon to the XLS. Through the use of software such as Solidworks and Fusion 360, they’ve been able to optimise the position of the vent, placing it where it can best benefit a dynamic driver.
As a flagship earphone, the XLS isn’t without its flaws. In terms of hardware, if you’re looking for the kind of no-detail left behind playback that’s available on multi-driver IEMS, the XLS might not be the earphone you’re looking for.
Despite having better resolution and imagine than the first Dream, the XLS stumbles when handling huge, layered orchestral pieces. Especially for wind instruments, the XLS’ separation may suffer when handling more complicated tunes.
This doesn’t mean you can’t listen to Mahler and Bruckner when using the XLS though. When writing this review, I listened to Bruckner’s 9th Symphony as played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Gunter Wand it was still very enjoyable.
Also if you’re the kind who likes big movements in your music, the XLS may not be able to provide the stimulation you’re looking form, I’m not saying that the XLS doesn’t respond well to music, but there’s a glut of high-end equipment using turning to artificially simulate the senses. These don’t have “natural” tuning but might make the XLS seem unexciting in comparison.
Those wanting to enjoy the bass of a male vocalist’s voice or low wind instrument sounds might find that the XLS’ tuning lacks heft. But it's good to remember that the XLS’ tuning has always emphasised naturalness and musicality. Putting aside these flaws, the XLS belongs in its own niche and achieves its goals well.
Listening with the XLS is enjoyable. It’s a piece of gear you can use to enjoy music seriously without being too concerned about what it’s paired with, drastically different from earphones that are easily affected by their pairings, eg the Final B1 and the DK-4001.
In terms of tuning, the XLS accomplishes the feat of toeing the line between palatable and audiophile, while still delivering a sound that hobbyists can easily enjoy, a lot of flagships aren’t quite able to achieve this, (the only other one that comes to mind is the PP8) this reflects DITA’s tuning standards. The XLS suits a wide range of suitable genres, this paired with its more forgiving nature and it’s outstanding engineering and design, is the bigger Dream the XLS aims to convey.
Freud mentions this in his Analysis of Dreams: Dreams are a truthful conversation between a man and his subconscious, they’re meant to be a a way one learns from oneself. DITA has repeatedly been through this process of self conversation, leading to the evolution that is the Dream XLS.
I mentioned earlier that good design is worth learning from and thinking about. This is, what I think another of DITA’s “Dreams” might be, to inspire dialogue and thought, especially since they truly have a lot of aspects worth emulating.
Artists are inspired by their Dreams and our own dreams can shape our futures. Benzene’s iconic chemical structure as we know it exists precisely because German Chemist Friedrich August Kekule dreamt of a snake eating its own tail.
Everyone’s dreams can inspire different results. Including the Dream XLS. So, Dream Bigger!